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Season of mists and curried fruitiness

Felicity Cloake's food column.

As a dedicated omnivore, I returned from a recent holiday in Spain stuffed with salty jamón and sheep’s cheese, sweet peaches and rabbit paella – and in need of spice. I’m only slightly ashamed to admit that the first thing we did on stepping on to the Gatwick Express was order a takeaway. Nothing says welcome home like lamb curry and dal.

Such dishes have become as comfortingly familiar as syrup sponge or sausage and mash, and in reality I eat more rogan josh than I do roast beef. The British taste for Indian food is often cited as evidence of our inherent liberalism – and I stand by my claim that I once saw spaghetti in the “foreign foods” section of a French supermarket – but the reality might be more indicative of persistent colonial attitudes.

From the get-go, we were busy bastardising the cuisine of our newest conquest, sweetening it with fruit – apples and sultanas were popular in Victorian curries – thickening it with flour and loading it with too much raw spice. (Indian cooks were puzzled by their masters’ obsession with heat. Plus ça change.)

Little wonder, then, that one 19th-century British bride, fresh off the boat in Bombay, wasn’t happy, lamenting that, “as to the curries it makes me sick to think of them: give me an English one!” Visiting India for the first time, I remember being similarly disappointed by the lack of old favourites on the menu. I was, in my defence, very young.

At the time, my order of choice would probably have been (the shame!) a lychee-studded chicken kashmiri, or perhaps a pina colada-like coconut and pineapple number whose name mercifully escapes me. You don’t see so many fruit curries around these days, something brought home to me last week, when I ate at Trishna in Marylebone, the sister restaurant of a Mumbai institution. It specialises in the “coastal cuisine” of the south-west but alongside the Koliwada shrimp and hariyali bream, the London branch is serving a game tasting menu. Tandoori grouse, bhuna venison – even the keema nan was filled with mallard. This, they inform me, is because they update their offering “every season, to reflect the availability of the produce”. This is not a place where you ask for “the hottest one you’ve got”.

Trishna is a far cry from the early days of Indian restaurants in Britain. The first opened in London in 1810 (there’s a plaque commemorating the Hindoostane Coffee House at 34 George Street, W1), and the legendary Veeraswamy in 1926, but it wasn’t until the 1960s that things took off. Many of the early premises were former cafés and fish and chip shops, and the new owners, keen to retain the existing customer base, added a few curries to the menu. Because few were professional chefs, these tended to be simple affairs, often all based on the same bought-in sauce, to which more or less curry powder could be added according to whether a korma, madras or vindaloo had been ordered.

On the sauce

Trends, such as the tandoor oven (introduced by Veeraswamy in 1959), regional cuisine and the balti craze of the 1980s, have come and gone but the biggest change has been the move upmarket. The Bombay Brasserie opened in Kensington in 1982 and, according to the restaurant critic Fay Maschler, “at a stroke altered the preconceptions of a cuisine that had long been immured in yards of flock wallpaper and all-purpose sauces”. When Iqbal Wahhab opened his Cinnamon Club in London in 2001, he vowed it would be a poppadom-free zone.

The UK now boasts five Michelin-starred Indian restaurants (some of them even serve poppadoms). Of my lychee curry, however, there is sadly no sign.

Felicity Cloake write the food column for the New Statesman. She also writes for the Guardian and is the author of  Perfect: 68 Essential Recipes for Every Cook's Repertoire (Fig Tree, 2011) and Perfect Host: 162 easy recipes for feeding people & having fun (Fig Tree, 2013). She is on Twitter as @FelicityCloake.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Conservative conference special

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The Bloody Mary is dead: all hail the Bloody Caesar

This Canadian version of an old standard is a good substitute for dinner.

It is not anti-Catholic bias that makes me dislike the Bloody Mary, that lumpish combination of tomato juice and vodka named after a 16th-century English queen who, despite the immense reach of her royal powers, found burning Protestants alive the most effective display of majesty.

My prejudice is against its contents: the pulverised tomatoes that look like run-off from a Tudor torture chamber. A whole tomato is a source of joy and, occasionally, wonder (I remember learning that the Farsi for tomato is gojeh farangi, which translates literally as “foreign plum”) – and I am as fond of pizza as anyone. Most accessories to the Bloody Mary are fine with me: Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, celery, black pepper, even sherry or oysters. But generally I share the curmudgeon Bernard DeVoto’s mistrust of fruit juice in my spirits: “all pestilential, all gangrenous, all vile” was the great man’s verdict. His main objection was sweetness but I will include the admittedly savoury tomato in my ban. At the cocktail hour, I have been known to crave all kinds of odd concoctions but none has included pulp.

To many, the whole point of a Bloody Mary is that you don’t wait until the cocktail hour. This seems to entail a certain shying away from unpleasant realities. I know perfectly well the reaction I would get if I were to ask for a grilled tomato and a chilled Martini at brunch: my friends would start likening me to F Scott Fitzgerald and they wouldn’t be referring to my writing talent. Despite its remarkably similar contents, a Bloody Mary is a perfectly acceptable midday, middle-class beverage. If the original Mary were here to witness such hypocrisy, she would surely tut and reach for her firelighters.

Yet, like the good Catholic I certainly am not, I must confess, for I have seen the error of my ways. In July, on Vancouver Island, I tried a Bloody Caesar – Canada’s spirited response to England’s favourite breakfast tipple (“I’ll see your Tudor queen, you bunch of retrograde royalists, and raise you a Roman emperor”). The main difference is a weird yet oddly palatable concoction called Clamato: tomato juice thinned and refined by clam juice. Replace your standard slop with this stuff, which has all the tang of tomato yet flows like a veritable Niagara, and you will have a drink far stranger yet more delicious than the traditional version.

Apparently, the Caesar was invented by an Italian restaurateur in Calgary, Alberta, who wanted a liquid version of his favourite dish from the old country: spaghetti alle vongole in rosso (clam and tomato spaghetti). He got it – and, more importantly, the rest of us got something we can drink not at breakfast but instead of dinner. Find a really interesting garnish – pickled bull kelp or spicy pickled celery, say – and you can even claim to have eaten your greens.

I’m sure that dedicated fans of the Bloody Mary will consider this entire column heretical, which seems appropriate: that’s the side I was born on, being Jewish, and I like to hope I wouldn’t switch even under extreme forms of persuasion. But this cocktail is in any case a broad church: few cocktails come in so many different incarnations.

The original was invented, according to him, by Fernand Petiot, who was a French barman in New York during Prohibition (and so must have known a thing or two about hypocrisy). It includes lemon juice and a “layer” of Worcestershire sauce and the tomato juice is strained; it may also actually have been named after a barmaid.

All of which proves only that dogma has no place at the bar. Variety is the spice of life, which makes it ironic that the world’s spiciest cocktail bestows a frivolous immortality on a woman who believed all choice to be the work of the devil.

Next week John Burnside on nature

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis